Second-Story Hidden Dangers: Decorative Building Facades and Additions


A growing trend in newer, smaller American communities is to create a nostalgic downtown area for shopping and gathering purposes, as most of these towns are spread out and have no centralized business district. Many of these towns and suburbs were born from corn and wheat fields since after World War II and were not settled according to where the railroad ran, as were much older towns. These towns’ claims to fame are the mega mall and strip malls on every corner that are the enemies of the fire service because of the lightweight construction in these buildings. Wanting to now shift away from the impersonal feel of the mega mall, many of these newer, and some older, towns have begun planning and constructing buildings (mostly lightweight strip malls) that give them an old-town feel and look (photos 1-3).

(1) Behind these windows and plywood are nothing more than 2 x 4 trusses spanning front to rear and reaching from below the windows to above the arches in the front. (Photos by author.)
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(2) This brand new building was built to look like an older building that had been renovated, as evidenced by the windows having been “bricked over.”
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(3) This strip mall has façade windows that are part of the parapet. There is nothing behind the facade except an almost vertical wood sheathing and metal stud wall extending from the top of the parapet to the roof, which results in a drop of almost seven feet to the roof.
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Many of these buildings are one story but are made to look like two-story buildings. They have a parapet that contains windows to give the appearance of having a second floor. The windows are real windows (not painted on) and can easily be mistaken for functioning ones. While it is not possible to vent and enter, these windows are good for venting the attic in lieu of sending companies to the roof.

The windows are between the ceiling and the roof and are purely aesthetic. One building I came across had a second floor complete with offices in the center of the strip mall but a façade second floor on the right side (photo 4). This is not limited to strip malls. This Wal-Mart was designed specifically to match the 18th century feel of Lockport, Illinois, where it was built (photo 5). As a result, it was made to look as if it has a second floor when, in fact, it does not. The building, although only one store, is almost 30 feet tall in the front.

(4) The “second-floor” windows flanking the center section are both facades, as seen in the view to the left of the photo. The center section contains a usable second floor with offices above the store.
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(5) The city of Lockport, Illinois, is more than 175 years old. It has many buildings with great architectural richness. Consequently, the city council required this Wal-Mart to look more like a two-story building of ordinary construction than part of a modern mega mall.
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What does all this mean to the fire service? These conditions present hazards for all levels of responders. The incident commander had better know this type of building exists before committing companies under or above such a space. There is great potential for an early collapse because of the lightweight lumber used and the large, open area between the roof and the first-floor ceiling in most of these structures (photo 6). This exaggerated cockloft, along with the amount of lumber used to construct the lightweight trusses, will allow for rapid and heavy fire spread that must be recognized early. My experience has been that few, if any, of these cocklofts/void spaces are sprinklered despite the fact that they are almost as tall as a regular livable floor area.

(6) In the rear, by looking at the gutter outlets, you can see the roofline drops nearly eight feet from front to rear. This should also be a warning that the roof is almost five feet below the parapet in the rear.
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The company officer should not let his company commit before popping the ceiling as the firefighters enter and as they proceed. This will help to expose any fire burning above you before you and your crew get too far inside and become cut off. If you find heavy fire above you, seriously consider removing your company, because it will only be a matter of minutes or maybe even seconds before the roof collapses. Also, be sure to alert Command and all other companies of this condition and your actions.

Do not blindly stretch the line inside without first observing the conditions from the exterior and from the point of entry. As stated, be sure to check above before going any farther than inside the point of entry and continue to pop tiles or inspection holes as you enter farther into the building. Another sign of a problem would be heavy smoke showing from the roof area with a clear or relatively clear interior. This would be an indication of fire involvement in or above the void space and of an impending (not potential) collapse hazard.


Another potential fireground killer is the building that has had its height increased. In an area that is already built up, the owner of a one-, two-, or three-story building may choose to add a floor onto the existing building. This is a very serious problem for responders in a fire because of the void condition these additions create. A battalion chief in Chicago nearly lost his life several years ago in such a structure. It was a building of ordinary (type III) construction that had had an additional floor added. As reported in the media, fire crews had found a fire on the upper floors. There was a sizable increase in heat with smoke but no visible fire in that area. As the firefighters were investigating and trying to find the source of the heat buildup, the floor gave way and plunged the battalion chief and several other members into the void. The other members self-extricated or were quickly rescued, but it took several minutes to remove the chief. The investigation found that the top floor had been added onto the existing building without removing any of the roofing or components of the original roof. When the fire, undetected by the firefighters, entered this area, it burned and weakened the floor of the vertical addition, which caused the floor to collapse. This was the reason for the high heat with no visible fire.

When a vertical addition is put on a building without removing the roof or roofing material, it not only leaves the original void between the ceiling and the roof (cockloft) but also creates an inverted void between the original roof and the new floor. Even if companies are aware this condition exists, opening a floor to expose a fire would be labor intensive and time consuming. Use great caution if you make any attempt to expose this area, since it can create a backdraft or allow a sudden flare-up of fire. It is essential to have hoselines in place, charged, and ready to operate, if companies attempt to open up this type of remodeling feature. Chances are that there was a delay in notifying the fire department, which would have allowed enough burn time to weaken the floor and the original roof (photo 7).

(7) Looking at this building, can you tell that it was at one time a one-story building of ordinary construction with concrete block walls? There is nothing on the exterior to indicate that this building has been altered.
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As always, be aware of your surroundings. One way to do this is to take the time to become familiar with a building’s construction features when you respond to that structure on an EMS call, in nonfire conditions. Note the construction features and then pass the information to your company and other members of your department. Identify potential problems and solutions prior to an emergency. Also, observe new construction and renovated buildings in your community or response area. Preplanning these buildings is a must.

MICHAEL J. LOPINA, an 18-year veteran of the fire service, is a career lieutenant/paramedic with the Lockport Township (IL) Fire/Paramedic Department, where he is also a member of the technical rescue team and a former fire inspector. He is also a lead instructor with the Southwest United Fire District Academy in Darien, Illinois, and an instructor with the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

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